Methodist History, Juli 2008
John Tyson’s biography of Charles Wesley is one of a range of publications released in 2007 to coincide with the tercentenary of the birth of the cofounder of Methodism. Tyson has produced an interesting and readable account of Wesley’s life, which will be of value to Methodists wanting to find out more about the lesser-known Wesley brother.
A great strength of Assist Me to Proclaim is Tyson’s extensive use of Wesley’s own writings. Tyson allows Wesley to tell much of his own story, drawing on published and unpublished letters, diaries and hymns. This brings alive the dramatic story of the first half of Wesley’s life: the intense formative years at Epworth; spiritual strivings at Oxford, missionary work in Georgia; struggle and conversion in London; and his crucial role in the tumultuous birth of the Methodist movement amidst persecution and factional conflict. chapter on Wesley’s friendships highlights an important aspect of his life and personality.
Tyson also goes beyond many previous biographers in paying serious attention to the second half of Charles Wesley’s life, following his marriage 1749, These years included the birth of his eight children (only three survived), increasingly severe conflict with John Wesley and many of the lay preachers, and his most fruitful years of hymn writing. These years have been neglected by many biographers, partly because of the often mutual hostility between Charles and the lay preachers, who helped write the history early Methodism. This hostility and its causes have been much more closely examined in Gareth Lloyd’s Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist identity (2007) but Tyson highlights some of the main issues at stake.
Surprisingly though the lack of footnotes makes it difficult to be sure Tyson does not appear to have consulted the correspondence between Wesley’s children in which they discussed their father after his death. This points to one of the weaknesses of the book: it makes use of only a narrow selection of the amazingly rich and diverse unpublished sources available to the scholar of early Methodism. This means that while the book is a good introduction to Charles Wesley for the general reader, it has less to offer the historian or theologian looking for new insights into this enigmatic man.
For example, the extensive correspondence between lay Methodists and Charles Wesley reveals his pastoral skills and concerns. The writings of many women who corresponded with the Methodist preacher Mary Fletcher illustrate how Wesley was being discussed and described by his female contemporaries. Such sources provide the opportunity to place Wesley within the wider context of the Methodist movement, beyond his relationship with its leaders. Tyson does not appear to have taken this opportunity. Assist me to Proclaim is a more significant step forward than many previous biographies, but a serious scholarly biography of Charles Wesley remains to be written.